MORE than 90 per cent of our food, fuel and everyday items comes here by sea and it’s often said that, without seafarers, half the world would starve and half the world would freeze.
Yet despite their vital role, far too many of the world’s 1.65 million seafarers continue to suffer appalling levels of exploitation, excessive working hours and substandard working conditions.
Bananas might well be “fair trade” and timber “sustainably sourced,” but the high human cost of transporting such goods by sea remains out of sight and out of mind for many people.
Last year alone, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and its global maritime affiliates, such as Nautilus and the RMT, recovered almost $38 million (£29.6m) in unpaid wages for seafarers around the world. These are staggering statistics, representing shameful treatment of thousands of crew members who have been cheated out of their wages.
And it’s happening right on our doorstep. Only a few weeks ago, lengthy work by one of the two Nautilus/ITF inspectors helped to end the 18-month ordeal of an Indian crew stranded in the port of Great Yarmouth with almost $700,000 (£546,000) owed wages and earlier this year the other recovered more than $80,000 (62,400) for seafarers on a flag of convenience ship detained in Ellesmere Port.
Such cases not only bring the shipping industry into disrepute but also undermine the operators committed to decent pay and conditions and investment in training.
The unfair competition caused by the employment of low-cost foreign crew on shipping services in and around the UK coast serves to depress wages and prevent local seafarers from competing for work.
And where we find such cases of owed wages and poverty pay, all too often we also uncover evidence of excessive working hours, fatigue, stress, little or no ability to communicate with friends and family and workplace ill-health, injury and fatality rates well in excess of any shore-based occupation.
Nautilus is determined to drive such shocking practices out of our waters. And we’ve come to congress this year with two motions seeking support from affiliates for important campaigns to combat the extraordinary levels of exploitation, social dumping and unfair competition which our members are exposed to.
We want to keep pressure on governments to continuously improve the pioneering Maritime Labour Convention, which was introduced in 2016 as an effective global minimum standard to underpin improvements in the lives of seafarers.
To do that in Britain, we need to ensure there are the necessary staffing, resources and political commitment to police and enforce the requirements of the convention and head off political pressure to dilute UK maritime regulatory standards to compete with flags of convenience.
We also need to ramp up pressure on companies such as Irish Ferries, which has failed to engage with the maritime unions or to provide any assurances that their crew will be paid at least in line with Irish and UK national minimum wage legislation.
In an international industry like shipping, it is vital that we have effective trans-boundary regulation to prevent widescale abuse of a highly mobile workforce like seafarers.
The European fair transport campaign seeks to ensure that all transport workers are paid a fair wage for the country they are working in, not the country of their origin.
With Brexit looming, it is essential that seafarers get the protection they deserve. Wherever you stand on Brexit, trade is at the heart of it and, for our members working in an industry at the heart of maritime trade, the impact could be immense.
I hope congress delegates will give their emphatic support to seafarers and make sure that the principles of fair trade go well beyond bananas.
Mark Dickinson is general secretary of Nautilus.
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